Seven deadly sins of corporate website usability

At our recent annual conference, in partnership with the Bunnyfoot user experience (UX) agency, we conducted some user testing on some of our delegates’ websites. Although the sessions were designed just to give an indication of how this type of testing can help web managers, they provided some real food for thought, says Andrew Rigby.


This is the latest in our series of posts about the conference, following on from our summary of six key takeaways. A guest blog from one of our speakers will follow in the coming weeks.

The sessions we ran with Bunnyfoot involved giving users exercises to complete on a corporate website that they did not know. We asked each tester to put themselves in the shoes of a corporate website user wanting to complete a relevant, two-stage task. For example, a jobseeker looking for information on a particular company’s sustainability policies before searching for a specific job.

With the help of some clever eye-tracking technology, we – and the web managers of the sites being tested – could see how the users went about trying to find the right information.

We should point out that the sessions were only indicative: we used delegates as our guinea pigs and gave each one just ten minutes to complete the tasks. Real user experience design (UX) testing would involve asking a number of users, who are actually investors or jobseekers or the like, to complete a series of tasks over a longer a period. 

In other words, our tests were not truly scientific. We just wanted to show that UX testing is relatively easy to conduct with the right equipment and the help of experts like Bunnyfoot; and to give an idea of the type insights it can reveal. 

But even allowing for the lack of rigour, seven deadly sins of corporate website UX emerged:

1. Unhelpful search

Users frequently started their tasks on external search engines, or often used the sites’ internal search mechanisms. So not only do corporate sites need to perform well on the likes of Google, but their own searches need to help users find what they want. All too often, internal searches failed to deal with misspellings or synonyms by suggesting alternatives, to search PDFs, or to present results in well-ordered lists.

2. Neglected navigation

Poor navigation meant that many users resorted to the internal search or simply failed to complete their tasks. Sometimes this was due to difficulties in using dropdown menus – some were simply too big to be used on a laptop screen. In other cases, users could not see the sub-sections or sub-pages at lower levels, and so were forced to take leaps of faith by clicking on section headings they hoped would reveal what they wanted. It was noticeable that left-hand menus – something we have championed for a while – were generally more successful and users were quick to use them; but there were poorly implemented examples of these too. 

Aside from the main menu styles, it was rare to find effective cross-linking to relevant content. It meant that if users found a page which was not quite what they were looking for, but perhaps was on the same topic, they were seldom offered on-page links to their destination. This was also true for predictable journeys which took in pages in different sections.

It left an impression that user needs should dictate information architecture and cross-linking more than they sometimes do.

3. ‘Look at me’, not ‘use me’, labelling

There were many examples of users finding what they wanted thanks to clear labelling in menus, or on-page links. Yet there were also instances of users being confused by vague section or page titles, either because several pages or themes were nested under them, or because ‘neat’ company-specific jargon or terms were being used. The absence of format icons or indicators for downloads also created uncertainty. 

Tasks were more likely to be completed on sites where web managers had anticipated the words or phrases which users would be looking for and had labelled pages and sections accordingly, or surfaced important pages higher in the website structure, rather than hiding them under catch-all section titles which did not resonate with users. Users responded well to headings labelled with their audience type, such as Investors or Media.

4. Imperfect page layouts

How a page is presented matters: there were various instances of users finding the correct page, but still missing the right information on it. Big blocks of text - especially ones in capital letters – or crucial information contained a long way down a page or only in a PDF, especially hampered usability. 

Pages with short paragraphs – getting shorter as the page continues – and with signposts to key information on them, such as anchor links or headings, performed well. Users tend to scan long pages rather than read them in detail.

5. Inconsistent images

Given that users often scan pages rather than read every word, images can provide a quick visual cue as to whether users are on the right page. A poorly chosen image occasionally undermined user confidence, to the extent that some left the page that best served their needs. Images which supported page content by reflecting the idea or region being talked about were more helpful. 

6. Painful processes

Whether it was a badly designed search mechanism, or a job application system which required login details too be entered twice, users were quick to abandon journeys – or at least voice their displeasure – if barriers were put in their way. Getting users to the right place is not enough, as they expect a painless process once there.

7. Cookie monsters

Quite a few sites were dominated by very large cookie consent mechanisms when users hit the first page. Many users either failed to dismiss these until several pages into their journey, or became confused by their presence. Of course, these notices need to be presented, but doing so in an appropriate way is important, as they can form an initial impression of a site from the very outset. Another example of something which can easily be overlooked, but can actually be a big factor in a good user experience. 

User testing can be seen as a luxury by corporate web managers, and one which is often omitted from projects in the face of small teams, tight budgets and pressing deadlines. But if time and money can be found, seeing how real users interact with a website can be very helpful – so that the UX can be tailored to their needs.

- Andrew Rigby

Guide to online corporate audiences: Contact Dan Drury (ddrury@bowencraggs.com) for a copy of the visitor profiles Bowen Craggs uses when evaluating websites and social channels for our Index of Online Excellence. Eligible recipients only – usually senior digital communications professionals working for large corporate or public sector/non-governmental organizations.